Between The Lines

They’ve started a new campaign in German Village. The aspirational goal: to bring order and regularity in on-street parking.

Since we’ve been here, parking has been — to put it mildly — chaotic. Most houses don’t have driveways or garages, so street parking is a necessity. To complicate things, there are a few zones where stickers are required and non-stickered cars can get ticketed, but other areas are open for parking by anyone. The result is that people park where they can, which often means precious street parking space is wasted by yawning gaps between cars that nevertheless aren’t quite big enough to accommodate a car. When you’re hunting for a nearby parking space late at night, the not-quite-big-enough gaps and wasted spaces can be frustrating.

The new approach seeks to conserve and fully employ the precious street parking space. The city has painted corners like the one shown above to define specific parking spaces, and has also posted signs like the one below explaining the program and noting that people who flout the spaces can be cited with a $47 ticket. I can’t speak to whether people are reading the signs — I did, at least— but they do seem to be honoring the new spaces and parking between the lines. That will mean more parking spaces for us all.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that painting indicated spots on streets would spur parking compliance and end the Wild West parking atmosphere. If the price of achieving more parking spaces is simply the cost of a few cans of white paint and the wages of whoever painted the corners, German Village residents can reasonably wonder why this simple solution wasn’t tried before. But let’s not be grudging, shall we? A delayed solution is still a solution, and the new program shows the city is paying attention to the unique needs of our community. That’s good to see.

For Court Of Appeals Judge: Lisa Forbes

Early voting has started in Ohio, and today I am going to break my vow not to write about the election for a second, and last, time. If you live in Cuyahoga County, I urge you to vote for Lisa Forbes for the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which is the Ohio appellate court covering Cuyahoga County. You can find Lisa’s campaign web page and information about her background and involvement in the community here.

First, the appropriate disclosures: I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working with Lisa Forbes at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP for decades. Lisa and I have worked together on matters for clients and have served together on firm committees. She is a valued colleague and friend. I like and respect her, and I think she’s got all of the qualities that would make her a terrific court of appeals judge. Living in Columbus, I can’t vote for her — unfortunately! — but I have contributed to her campaign because I think supporting smart, qualified, hard-working people to serve on our courts is good for our judicial system and good for the Buckeye State.

For those of you who aren’t lawyers and therefore aren’t intimately familiar with the Ohio state court system, appellate courts are the courts that review trial court decisions and jury verdicts. If you’re a civil case litigant, or a criminal case defendant, and you think your trial court made a mistake, you go to the court of appeals for a second look and second opinion. After the court of appeals has had its say, you have the opportunity to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to take your case — but the Supreme Court accepts and considers only a small fraction of the cases that go through the Ohio court system. The vast majority of Ohio state-court cases end at the court of appeals level, and the decisions made by the courts of appeals are viewed as important legal precedent by other courts throughout Ohio.

That’s why it is so important to have really good judges on our courts of appeals. Because the Ohio courts of appeals review all cases that are properly submitted to them from the trial courts in their districts, they’ve got a significant workload of both civil and criminal cases. It is essential to have hard-working appellate judges who can review the briefs, thoughtfully analyze the legal issues, question lawyers for the parties at oral arguments, and then reach a decision with the other court of appeals judges assigned to the case and write an opinion explaining the court’s reasoning. If court of appeals judges don’t work hard, the system becomes clogged and appeals can drag on for months or even years, which can be frustrating for everyone involved.

Lisa Forbes has all of the capabilities you would ideally want in a court of appeals judge. She’s one of the most conscientious, hard-working people I know, someone who has deftly juggled family responsibilities and work obligations for years. She won’t drop the ball or disappoint litigants and lawyers who are looking for prompt decisions. She has a keen legal mind, she has lots of experience in wrestling with difficult and novel issues presented in challenging cases and finding the precedent and authorities that are relevant, and she is a gifted writer. Based on her years of experience, no case that might come to the Eighth District Court of Appeals would be beyond the ability of Lisa Forbes to thoughtfully and fairly evaluate and decide, and she would then explain her reasoning in an opinion that would be clear and understandable to everyone who read it — lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

The last point is a crucial one, because an important part of our judicial system is showing even losing parties that they have been heard, their arguments have been respected and fairly considered, and there are solid reasons why those arguments haven’t prevailed. We want our courts to be regarded by all as even-handed bastions of justice and fairness, and it is important to have judges who will always focus on and strive toward that goal.

I know that Lisa Forbes will do that. If you live in Cuyahoga County, in this election I encourage you to vote for Lisa Forbes for the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

My Interview With RBG

I was very saddened to read yesterday of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer.  She was one of those rare Supreme Court justices who was not only a towering legal figure, but also a titanic cultural figure as well.

As the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a role model and iconic figure for generations of women entering the legal profession and, more broadly, women breaking boundaries in formerly male-dominated professions of all kinds.  Her jurisprudence shows that she was a tireless, and relentless, advocate for women’s rights, but also a brilliant and careful legal analyst and deft writer whose considerable brainpower was well applied to every case that came before the Supreme Court.

And in my view, at least, Justice Ginsburg was an important cultural figure in another way as well.  She was great friends with former Justice Antonin Scalia, even though their views on the law and its purpose could not have been farther apart.  They shared a love of opera, enjoyed socializing, and actually performed on stage in a 1994 Washington National Opera production.  It says something about the character and temperament of both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia that they could put aside their political and legal disagreements and still enjoy each other’s company.  It’s a quality that we could use a bit more of in these bitterly divided, hyperpartisan times.

I had the privilege of actually interviewing for a clerkship position with Judge Ginsburg in 1984, when she was serving as one of the leading, up-and-coming judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and I was beginning my third year of law school.  I had sent resumes and letters to all of the court of appeals judges and was thrilled to get a callback interview with Judge Ginsburg.  (I suspect that her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a Georgetown Law professor who had taught two tax classes I had taken, may have put in a good word for me.)  Alas, when I arrived for the interview Judge Ginsburg told me, with characteristic gentle forthrightness, that she had just offered the position to another candidate, who had accepted, and she said that under the circumstances if I wanted to skip the interview she would understand and be fine with that.

I was disappointed at the news, but figured what the heck — how often am I going to get a chance to talk for a while with one of the world’s leading legal minds? — so I said if it was okay with her I’d like to stay and chat, anyway.  We spent a very enjoyable hour talking about her husband and his great teaching style and a law review article I was working on about the intersession pocket veto, an issue that had arisen before the D.C. Circuit.  Judge Ginsburg asked some incisive questions about the issues and had some interesting observations about them, and then flattered me by asking for a copy of my draft article, which I promptly sent.  I may not have gotten a clerkship out of our brief encounter, but I did get a good story and some insights into an important historical figure from the experience.

When President Clinton appointed Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, I knew she would be an important Justice, and of course she was.  Today I remember not only the leading jurist and influential role model, but also the funny, dynamic person I met more than 35 years ago.  The world is a little poorer today with her passing.

Sports And Politics

Yesterday my ESPN app sent me an “alert” that Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback, had tweeted that he had decided to reverse course and stand for the National Anthem at the start of today’s game. (Or maybe it was the other way around; I really haven’t been paying close attention to Baker Mayfield’s apparently evolving stance on the National Anthem.)

Mostly, my reaction was that things sure have changed in the wide world of sports.since I was a kid. Of course, there wasn’t Twitter or social media of any kind in those days, but it’s hard to imagine any professional sports figure of my youth sending out any kind of politically oriented messages on the day before a Big Game. Their focus would be exclusively on getting their Game Face on for the contest — or, at least, they sure would want you to think that mental preparation was their sole preoccupation.

Of course, politics did mix with sports from time to time in those days. The John Carlos and Tommy Smith Black Power salutes during their medal award ceremony in the 1968 Olympics were a big deal, and if I recall correctly Redskins coach George Allen publicly endorsed President Nixon and let him call a play during a game. But for the most part sports was separate, and a chance to get away from politics and enter a world where your sports allegiances were far more important than your political inclinations and people from across the political spectrum could unite in celebration of the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship victory or commiserate about the ineptitude of the Cleveland Indians during the ’70s.  Sports was a kind of safe space for cocktail party conversation or backyard cookout chatter.

Those days are long gone.  Today’s athletes seem to be as immersed in politics as anybody else, and are very open about their views.  I’m perfectly okay with that, and recognize that these days a figure like LeBron James or Baker Mayfield has to be thinking about his position on issues like standing or kneeling for the National Anthem, because other people are going to be paying attention to it,  And athletes are as entitled as the next person to express their political views and use platforms like Twitter to do so.  Of course, political speech adds a new dimension to the sports star-fan dynamic.  Athletes who venture into the political world have to recognize that, just as they have the right to express their political views, fans do, too — maybe by booing, maybe by criticizing what they perceive as inconsistency or hypocrisy in the athletes’ positions, or maybe by just deciding that the world of sports is no longer as fun and innocent and apolitical as it used to be and not buying tickets to games or watching broadcasts or buying jerseys with their favorite player’s name,   

The days when sports and politics were separate worlds probably will never come back.  Politics has invaded everything, and sports is not immune.  That’s the reality, but I do kind of miss the days when you could watch a ball game for a few hours without politics intruding into the triumphs and heartbreaks of the sports fantasy world.   

Judge Gina Russo

My regular readers know that this year I’ve sworn to avoid writing about politics, and so far I’ve kept my pledge. But today I want to deviate from that course and write about a candidate who is running to keep a seat on the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas:  Judge Gina Russo.  You can read about her on her website.  

Judge Russo began her legal career as an associate at our firm, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP.  She was a smart, capable, hard-working member of our litigation group who had a special love for trials and the courtroom.  Judge Russo also was an absolute pleasure to work with:  someone who invariably displayed a positive, cheerful, can-do attitude and who could be counted on to get the assignment done, and done right.  She worked on pretty much every kind of case our firm handles, large and small, and got a lot of experience in various aspects of the civil litigation area.  Judge Russo also showed a knack for establishing strong relationships with clients–which is one of the hallmarks of gifted lawyers.  If a client keeps coming back to you when they’ve got a legal issue, it’s a tangible sign that the clients think you really care about their problems and are doing a good job on their behalf.  I’m happy to report to you that Judge Russo’s clients kept coming back.

Judge Russo left our firm because she relished the courtroom, and civil litigation trials tend to be few and far between.  If you want to get that regular courtroom experience, the prosecutor’s office is where to go–and that’s where Judge Russo went.  I was sad that she left our firm, but people have to follow their star, and I knew that she yearned to be on her feet before judges and juries and had made a careful, thoughtful decision, as she always had done.  It turned out to be a very good decision for her, because Judge Russo got the courtroom work she craved and rapidly worked her way up in the prosecutor’s office to the point where she was handling some of the office’s most challenging, high-profile felony cases. 

In March of 2019, Governor DeWine appointed Judge Russo to fill a vacancy on the Franklin County Common Pleas Court bench.  Now she is running for a new term as a judge, in the election to be held this November.  I’ll be voting for her, and I recommend that others do so, too.  Judge Russo has the breadth and depth of experience that we ideally look for in a judge–with significant direct involvement in civil and criminal litigation and first-hand exposure to the law in both of those areas.  And the same personal characteristics that made her a fine associate at our firm also serve her well on the bench.  Our society wants and needs judges who care about justice, objectivity, and fairness, who aspire to reflect those qualities in their conduct and their rulings, who will read and think carefully about what lawyers have written and argued, and who will work hard at their jobs.  And I want to emphasize that last point, because court dockets can become clogged and inert if judges aren’t always focused on deciding motions and keeping the cases before them moving forward.  I know from positive personal experience that Judge Russo will do all of those things, and no one will work harder, or with a more positive attitude, at their job.

It’s wonderful for the Columbus community and the justice system that we have excellent judicial candidates like Judge Gina Russo.  I recommend her wholeheartedly and without reservation.  Remember her when you head to the voting booth this fall.

N.P.A.

We’re getting closer and closer to the 2020 election. You can feel it.  And as Election Day draws nearer, one of the local shopkeepers felt compelled to post the sign pictured above.

The political types among us don’t understand this N.P.A. — No Politics Allowed — attitude.  They could rail against President Trump, or make fun of “Sleepy Joe,” all day long — and all night long, too.  They can’t get enough of the Politics with a capital “P,” and they want to make sure that everyone knows exactly where they stand.  To them, nothing is more important.  The very future of the country is at stake!  They’re immersed in it, they’re fascinated by it, they follow every development avidly, and they just can’t help talking about it and hoping that someone will be persuaded by their passion.

But there’s a solid core of people out there who are in a different camp.  They’ve got their political views, no doubt, but they don’t feel compelled to share them.  They don’t want to get into arguments about the election.  They may not find it all that interesting to hear people berate one candidate or the other, all the time, either.  Heck, they’d rather talk about COVID-19 mask designs than politics.  And they might also recognize that it’s very unpleasant to witness people get into a bitter political dispute — particularly if the people who are jawing at each other are patrons who are supposed to be enjoying a pleasant shopping experience.

So come in!  Look around!  Shop to your heart’s content!  But please . . . keep those impassioned political opinions to yourself, will you?  Please?

Some Independence Day Thoughts

It’s Independence Day.  As we recognize our oldest national holiday, dating back to before the country was even formally founded, no doubt many people are thinking that these are strange, difficult times, and are wondering just what the future may bring.  We’ve experienced significant protests across the country — with “Black Lives Matter” signs being seen even on a small road in this remote corner of Maine — and in this presidential election year political passions are running high.  

The spirit of unbridled protest has always run deep in this land.  We’ve fought two civil wars in an effort to define and structure concepts of liberty and freedom, and we’ve experienced other periods where the vein of protest pulsed strongly.  The country has seen the mass civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the women’s suffrage movement, the Prohibition and anti-Prohibition movements, and the organized labor movements in the late 1800s — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Each of these protests has changed the country in some meaningful way, and there is no doubt that the current protests will, too.  The spirit of protest is so important to this country that we have codified our right to protest in the very first provision of the Bill of Rights and specifically stripped Congress of the ability to make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  People who wring their hands about protests simply don’t understand our history, or our institutions.  In reality, protest is as American as apple pie.  

We often think of the “Founding Fathers” as gentlemen with powdered hair in fancy dress who secured freedom just by signing the Declaration of Independence — the execution of which gives rise to the holiday that we celebrate today.  From our vantage point, more than 240 years later, we tend to forget that country’s first civil war, which we now know as the Revolutionary War, was a harsh, bloody fight that occurred in a bitterly divided land — and the Founding Fathers in their silk stockings were the rebels

Courtesy of a present from Richard, I’m reading an excellent book about the first part of the revolutionary period by Rick Atkinson, called The British Are Coming.  One passage had particular resonance with me, in view of the period we are currently living through:

“John Adams, never taciturn, later would be quoted as saying, ‘I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy in the contest.’

“Few were hanged, at least not yet; incivility rarely turned to bestiality.  But no one could say how brutal the war would become.  Conformity, censorship, and zealotry now flourished.  Even small sins, such as ‘speaking diminutively of the country congress,’ might be punished with forced public apologies, boycotts, ostracism, or property confiscation.  A mild word of praise for the British government–or simply being suspected of thinking loyal thoughts–could provoke a beating.  Militias served as a political constabulary, bolstered by the Continental Army.  When Queens County, a loyalist stronghold on Long Island, voted 788 to 221 against sending representatives to the provincial congress, the names of those in the majority were published in the newspaper; they were forbidden to travel, hire a lawyer, or practice a trade.  More than a thousand militiamen and Continentals then swept through Queens, arresting opposition leaders, seizing weapons and extracting allegiance oaths–except from the 250 obdurate men who fled into the swamps to await General Howe’s arrival.

Such measures spread.”

In short, there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve been through these kinds of challenging periods–in fact, much more challenging periods–before.  Reading accurate histories of America would provide reassurance on that point.  Unfortunately, airbrushing history has also been a tradition in this country.  How many of us who went through the American school system were taught of the horrendous Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921, or of lynchings, or the role of the Ku Klux Klan in subjugating African Americans — or for that matter the egregious history of lies, broken promises and mistreatment of indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, or other ethnic groups, or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II?  Those terrible racist episodes are as much a part of American history, and our ability to gain a true and complete understanding of our country, as the lofty pronouncements in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those of us who were taught that America’s history is an unbroken story of freedom, liberty, and fairness in service to the world were not told the whole story.  We deserved the truth, but we didn’t get it.

I hope that that will be one of the positive impacts of these current protests.  We can only fully grasp the meaning and complexity of American history, and the true importance of crucial historical figures, if we take an unvarnished view of their lives and understand their faults, flaws, and failings as well as their successes.  I hope that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms that we are seeing in these protests ensures that American history is never sanitized again and the full story — good, bad, and ugly — is told from here on out.

The exercise of our freedoms is something worth celebrating.  Happy Fourth of July, everyone!  

Moving Goalposts And Quarantine Fatigue

The press paid a lot of attention to the American people being out and about over the weekend.  In California, the media focused on people flocking to southern California beaches to surf, get some sun, and otherwise do what the Beach Boys told us people do on California beaches.  In New York, there were reports of lots of people out and about in Central Park.  Here in Columbus, we got some pretty spring days after a series of cold gloomy ones, and that caused a lot of people to get outside, too.

200323002623-03-california-beach-coronavirus-0321-super-teaseNone of this should be a surprise.  When the weather warms up in the spring, people naturally want to get outside and enjoy it, whether they live in California or Kalamazoo.  But these aren’t normal times, thanks to the coronavirus, and the press attention was all about people flouting governmental orders and not engaging in social distancing.

For the most part, I think Americans, and Ohioans, have done a pretty darned good job of abiding by unprecedented governmental orders.  For most of us who haven’t been sent to prison and didn’t experience governmental rationing or curfew orders during World War II, the coronavirus edicts are the biggest and most detailed governmental intrusions into our normal daily lives that we’ve ever experienced.  Given the history of contrarianism in the U.S., you’d expect there to be some resistance, but for the most part people have yielded, and accepted the need for the government efforts.  No one — and I mean no one — wants to kill people or see the country decimated by a fatal pandemic.

But government leaders need to understand that they can’t move the goalposts on us, either.  When the shutdown orders were first issued, they were presented as necessary to “flatten the curve,” protect health care resources from being overwhelmed, and give government time to shore up ventilator and mask supplies.  All of that has now been accomplished — and yet some are arguing that the restrictive orders should continue until . . . when or what, exactly?  I think many people have the sense that we’ve experienced a bait and switch, and the switch is happening right now.  The goalposts seem to be moving from flattening the curve to some point in the future that is more ambiguous and ill-defined — as if some government leaders and modelers and health care experts will “know it when they see it” and let the rest of us in on their decision at their leisure.  That perception is not exactly a recipe for broad societal compliance.

The sense of “quarantine fatigue” is real and, I think, is shared by many.  Part of it is people getting antsy, and part of it is spring fever, but I think part of it is just the notion that we weigh and accept risk as a matter of course, and build those risk-assessment decisions into our daily lives.  If you drive to work or take a driving vacation, you are increasing your risk of death in a traffic accident.  If you live in a house with a staircase, you are increasing your risk of a fatal fall.  But the government would never think (I hope) of banning driving, or multi-story family homes, or any of the other risks that we encounter and accept on a daily basis.

We all know, intuitively, that we can’t stay sheltering in place forever.  We need to get back to work and, equally important, to being permitted the freedom to make rational risk-weighing decisions about our lives.  If seniors who have health conditions and are in nursing homes are at high risk, by all means come up with tailored methods to protect them from COVID-19.  If wearing masks in subways has a discernible positive effect, by all means require them.  And if some people are so worried about the coronavirus that they want to work from home until a vaccine is successfully developed and they have a job that allows them to do so, fine.  But the sooner the government stops trying to ban people who have been penned up for 40 days from congregating outside on a beautiful warm day and starts communicating where we are right now and letting people make reasonable risk decisions, the better.

The Nazi Alternative Universe

We’ve been watching the excellent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America.  It’s a gripping, well-acted, and very difficult to watch story that is part of the “alternative history” genre.

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In the show, Charles Lindbergh — still a hero to millions for his solo flight across the Atlantic years before — decides to run for President in 1940 on an isolationist platform.  Lucky Lindy barnstorms across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis, giving the same short speech about America’s choice being between Lindbergh and war.  Lindbergh surprisingly defeats FDR, and the result is catastrophic for American Jews generally, and one Jewish family in particular, as the country slides into a cozy relationship with the Nazis, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism.  (And I haven’t had the chance to watch the last episode yet, so no spoilers here.)

It’s a difficult show to watch, of course, because no one wants to see the kind of America depicted on the show — but as I watched I found myself thinking about the role of Nazi Germany in the alternative history genre of fiction.  So many books and shows revolve around “what if” questions in which the Germans win World War II — The Man in the High Castle is one recent example — that it almost seems as if Nazism was responsible for the creation of the alternative history genre in the first place.  And it’s interesting that, of all of the potential turning points of history, World War II seems to be the source of far more interest than others.  There might be alternative histories written about “what if” worlds in which, say, the British won the War of 1812, or the Kaiser emerged victorious in World War I, but if so there aren’t many of them, and they’ve remained in obscurity.  The Nazis, in contrast, always seem to take center stage.

Why, exactly, do the Nazis command so much more interest and attention?  Part of it is that their creed and philosophies were so murderous, hateful, and outlandish that it’s hard to believe that they controlled a country and were able to launch and fight a global war, and implement the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago.  There’s a certain amazement about the fact that it happened, and that the Nazis actually existed in an era of automobiles and planes and telephones.  That still-shocking realization gives a powerful narrative punch to alternative history stories about what might have happened had those terrible, soulless murderers won, even 80 years after the Nazis were hurled into the dustbin of history.

Whenever I see or read an alternative history about a Nazi triumph and what it would have meant for the United States, I’m always reminded of a quote from Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, when he observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”  In short, people have long loved to predict that America is teetering on the brink of fascism and totalitarian repression.  World War II, perhaps, was the closest those predictions came to being realized.  Part of the reason that the Nazi alternative history genre is so crowded may be that the Nazis are a storytelling device that allows people to imagine that fascist America that has for so long been predicted, but has never come to pass.

I doubt that The Plot Against America will be the last alternative history in which America has fallen in World War II and fascism reigns in the former land of the free and home of the brave — and that’s OK.  Depictions of what a fascist America might look like helps us to keep our guard up.  That’s a big part of the reason that the “dark night of fascism” has never landed on our shores.

 

The Subway Vector

If you look at the New York Times map and chart of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, one fact screams out for attention:  the New York City metropolitan area has been far, far more affected by the epidemic than any other part of the country.  The disparity is profound.

As of today, the Times reports 34,726 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. — and fully half of those are in New York and New Jersey alone.  The incidence and mortality rates in those states are orders of magnitude higher than in other areas.  And it’s not the entire state of New York that is producing those staggering numbers, either.  Instead, the hot zone is for the most part limited to New York City and neighboring communities.

In fact, if you cut the New York City metropolitan area numbers out of the equation, you find that the per capita numbers for the rest of America are far less alarming than the overall numbers, and much more in line with the data reported from other countries.  The vast disparity in the virulence and transmission of the coronavirus in the New York City area, compared to the rest of the country, is compelling support for making decisions on reopening the country and the economy on a state-by-state, locality-by-locality basis.

6068390_040120-wabc-crowded-subway-imgThis drastic difference in the impact of COVID-19, though, begs the question:  why is the New York City area being hit so much harder than other areas?  Of course, it’s more densely populated than the rest of the country, which clearly must have an impact.  But there is an ongoing, increasingly heated controversy about whether New York City’s mass transit system — and, specifically, its subways — are a vector for transmission of the disease.  An MIT professor has looked at some data and argues that the subways are having a noticeable impact.  Others, including transit authority officials, contend that the MIT study is not scientifically valid and shows, at most, correlation — which is not causation.

It seems entirely plausible that subways could be a contributor to New York City’s bad coronavirus statistics.  If you’ve ever ridden the subway, you know that the platforms and cars are crowded, with people packed together, sharing metal poles as they steady themselves against the jostling of the cars, and also sharing limited breathing space.  The social distancing being practiced in other parts of the country just isn’t possible.  And, in my experience, the subway cars aren’t kept spotlessly clean, either.  If you compare that method of transportation to the “car culture” that prevails in other parts of the country, where most people travel in their own vehicles with windows closed, it could provide an explanation for at least part of the disparity in the coronavirus data.  At the very least, it is a possible cause and hypothesis that should be fully evaluated.

This is a hot-button issue, because New York City’s subway system is a primary source of transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, and if the subways are — after careful study and analysis, of course — determined to be a vector for transmission of COVID-19, that will dramatically complicate the process of reopening the Big Apple.  And mass transit is a political issue, as well, and there is a risk that political considerations will affect taking a hard look at the public health issues related to  subway use and operations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that our political officials can’t resist playing politics even in a time of global pandemic.  But at some point, public health considerations should trump petty political posturing.  We need to figure out why NYC is such a huge outlier, and then take steps to make sure that the causes for the disparity are properly addressed so that people in New York — and in the rest of the country — are protected the next time a virus sweeps across the world.

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

I read an interesting article the other day about how to get the economy back up and running — and, not incidentally, about understanding why the economy ground to a halt in the first place.  The article contends that it really wasn’t governmental shutdown orders that did the significant damage — it was fear.

Once people started to accept that the coronavirus really was serious and dangerous, and not just some grossly exaggerated boogeyman like so many over-hyped diseases of past years, they stopped doing what they were doing — even before government orders took effect, and even as to conduct that government orders still permit.  And when the American consumer, the primary cog in the greatest economic engine in the history of the world,  decides to change course, as a group, the consequences are profound.  The dominoes started falling, businesses saw sharp drop-offs in orders, and the unemployment rate ratcheted upward to levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.

img_9476And that’s where we are.  There’s still a lot of fear out there — among some people, at least — and that needs to be dealt with as part of the reopening process.  The author of the piece linked above contends that what we really need to deal with that general sense of fear is widespread availability of protective masks, and also widespread availability of reliable COVID-19 testing.  The masks may have a good effect toward preventing transmission of the disease when people are out in public, but they also may just make people feel safer, more secure, and more willing to go out to a store rather than ordering everything they might need through Amazon Prime.  Masks thus may have a tangible public health effect, but also a kind of calming placebo effect.  Some of the other steps that governmental guidance has outlined for reopening businesses — like having people coming to work take their temperatures — also seems like it will help to build confidence that going out in public doesn’t involve crushing risk.

The testing is equally important, because it might finally provide us with the data that will give us a real sense of just what the coronavirus is, how many people have it or have already had it, and what its mortality rate truly is.  And while it might be fun, politically, to castigate our political leaders for not having millions of tests readily available for a disease that was totally unknown until a few months ago, I don’t see the value in playing the blame game.  Once most testing is done — and particularly more random testing of the general population, rather than testing only those people who already are in extremis physically — we’ll have a better sense of the real risks of a return to normalcy.

For all of the scary headlines about mounting death tolls, there are tantalizing indications in some of the general testing of certain populations that has been done that the coronavirus is far more widespread that health authorities have believed, and that the vast majority of the cases don’t cause serious health issues.  According to the CDC website, accessed today, the people who are really at risk seem to be senior citizens — especially those in certain nursing homes — and people with significant, pre-existing medical conditions, like respiratory illness, compromised immunity systems, or morbid obesity.  If general testing is done and it confirms that the real risk of coronavirus is limited to certain vulnerable populations, then we can step to provide protections specifically designed for those populations — and people who don’t fall into those high-risk populations can start to go about their business.  That concept, not incidentally, will require the news media to accurately report boring test data, rather than focusing on death counts.  When scary headlines are producing lots of clicks and website traffic, that might be asking for a lot.

One of our greatest Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously told the American people in the midst of the Great Depression that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  That admonition seems apt as we move into the post-shutdown phase of the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020.  If we’re going to get the economy going, help people who have been thrown out of work, and bring the unemployment rate down, a lot of frightened people are going to have to conquer their fears and accept the risks inherent with doing things like shopping and eating in public.  Having better data — and better reporting of data — will help.

From Behind The Bureaucratic Curtain

Kish and I have watched some of the federal coronavirus task force briefings.  I know they are a flash point for many people.  Some people hate the President’s bombastic, promotional approach to presenting information and answering questions, and others react viscerally to the pugnacious inquiries that members of the White House press corps throw at him.  But we want to get overall information about how things are going, and the briefings are the most direct way to accomplish that — and if we have to swallow bombast and some combative exchanges with journalists in the process, so be it.

Deborah Birx, Anthony Fauci, Mike PenceThe best and most interesting parts of the briefings, in our view, happen after the parts that the news media focuses on, when the President and the Vice President turn things over to the COVID-19 task force members and other officials who are managing parts of the response to the coronavirus.  There’s no doubt that President Trump has a huge ego, but to his credit he is quite willing to share the White House podium with other officials, and he lets them directly take and answer questions, too.  As a result, we get to see and learn about the real people who are dealing, every day, with this maelstrom.

Dr. Deborah Birx and her endless supply of colorful scarves is one of the mainstays of the briefings.  When she’s not coordinating the American response to a global pandemic, Dr. Birx is an Ambassador-at-Large in the State Department, where she is the Coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.  Another mainstay of the briefings is the earnest Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.  Like most doctors, Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci radiate caution and credibility, and we always are interested in what they have to say about the data, the curve, the hot spots, and the litany of other health care challenges posed by the scourge of COVID-19.

And we also typically get to hear from other people in the alphabet soup of federal agencies that are found throughout the executive branch of the national government.  We’ve heard from the heads of the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Navy admiral tasked with managing the logistics headaches in supplying the “hot spots” with masks and gloves and ventilators from the federal stockpile, and Vice President Mike Pence, who supervises the task force — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Because the impact of the coronavirus is so broad, if you watch the daily briefings you’re bound to see and hear from somebody new who is dealing with some specific aspect of the federal response to the coronavirus.

For those who reflexively dismiss “bureaucrats,” the briefings are probably a real eye-opener.  The people who stand behind the podium, provide us with up-to-the-minute and detailed information, and then answer questions forthrightly all come across as smart, experienced, well-spoken, knowledgeable people who are motivated by a sincere desire to do the best job they possibly can to help the country through an extraordinary crisis.  And the briefings are a good way to see what the federal government brings to bear in a crisis:  not just stockpiles of ventilators and doses of medication and an Army Corps of Engineers that can throw up thousand-bed hospitals in the blink of an eye, but also lots of capable, hard-working people with undoubted expertise who can be trusted to tackle a problem and execute a plan.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a weird learning experience in more ways that we can count, but through these daily briefings and the direct statements of task force members we’ve gotten a peek behind the bureaucratic curtain to see those people who are at ground zero of our national response.  It’s been interesting, and reassuring.  Say what you will about the “deep state,” and criticize President Trump’s managerial style all you want, but if you watch those briefings I think you’ll come away impressed by the sprawling team that is trying to navigate our country through an unprecedented public health crisis.  I have been, at least.

The Laboratories Of Democracy At Work

Amidst all of the focus on the federal government government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have forgotten that, in our system of government, it is the states that have the power to make the truly important decisions.  They’re about to be reminded about that.

51ryo5scx7l._ac_sy400_The response to COVID-19 has actually been a good illustration of how America is supposed to work — and why we’re called the United States in the first place.  The federal government can offer guidance, and can coordinate how the national stockpiles of ventilators and masks and hospital gowns are distributed among the states according to need and forecasts, but it is the states, each a separate sovereign government with a separate sphere of responsibility, that have made the really big decisions about how to deal with the scourge of COVID-19.

States can, and do, take different approaches to issues — which is why Justice Brandeis long ago described states as the “laboratories of democracy.”  In Ohio, we’ve been under a state-ordered lockdown decree for weeks, and most states have similar lockdown orders, but each of the orders varies in terms of who may work, who is considered essential, and what businesses may operate.  Notably, a number of states, primarily in the middle swath of the United States, have not issued lockdown orders at all.  (And, in case you’re curious, those states for the most part have low rates of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths, according to the New York Times state tracking tool.)

I say above that we’re going to see a real reminder of the importance of state decision-making very soon because we’re rapidly approaching the point where the states that have been shut down are going to be deciding when, and how, to get back to work.  On Friday, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he expects to issue an executive order on reopening businesses in this coming week.  Ohio Governor Mike DeWine hasn’t given a deadline, but has said he also is working on an order to reopen the state for business.  We can expect many other states whose statistics are at the low end of the coronavirus incidence rate list to also be looking to get back to normal, and probably sooner rather than later.

Having a state-centric approach is unnerving to some people, who think centralized decision-making is by definition better decision-making.  Having the states act as “laboratories of democracy” in deciding how to reopen after a pandemic seems like the right approach to me, however.  The United States is a big country, and conditions differ significantly from state to state, in ways that are directly relevant to dealing with shutdown orders and pandemics.  Some states are rural, some are industrial.  Some states are densely populated, and some are so wide open it’s breathtaking.  It makes no sense that Wyoming, say, should be on the same timetable as New York or subject to the same requirements as New York.  In reality, governors and state officials know their states far better than federal officials ever could, and they can and will make decisions that are tailored to the needs of their specific constituents.

We should all pay attention, because we’re getting a real-life, real-time civics lesson — and the lessons will continue in the coming days and weeks.  If the national news media is smart, they’ll start paying a little more attention to the different states and how those state officials are deciding how to restart things.

All Together Now

As I’ve taken walks around Schiller Park over the last few days, I’ve noticed that people are interested in publicly expressing their collective community spirit.  The above sign appeared in the window of the Hausfrau Haven, and I’ve seen similar messages chalked onto sidewalks — like “#RallyColumbus.”  It’s all part of an effort by the common folk to show some mutual support, and let their fellow citizens know that we’re all in this together, and that together we will get through our coronavirus trial.

I’m confined to the German Village area, of course, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the signs and sidewalk messages I’ve seen here are just the very small tip of a much larger iceberg that can be found across the country.  Americans have a way of coming together during difficult times, helping each other out, and working to lift each others’ spirits.  Our political representatives might fight like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but the people stand together during the tough times — and messages that express that sentiment in a tangible way, for all to see, really help.  And, of course, there’s a lot more that we can’t see publicly that also reflects a fighting, mutually supportive spirit, like texts among groups of friends and co-workers and e-mail chains and virtual get-togethers and Facebook memes.

The attitude of toughness and resiliency makes me think of one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and video snippets, which appeared at the end of the Yellow Submarine film — All Together Now.  Let’s hope that we can maintain that ‘tude, and it will carry us through. 

Money Well Spent

According to the press, Mike Bloomberg spent somewhere between $500 million and $700 million of his considerable person fortune on his quest for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for President. We got these two direct mail pieces in the afternoon mail today — a few hours after Hizzoner withdrew from the race.

The two pieces are nice, professionally done, very sturdy mailers. It seems a shame to let them go to waste, so I’m going to keep them to help light our first outdoor fire pit fire of the season this coming weekend.

I wonder if Mayor Bloomberg feels like he threw that $700 million into a fire pit, too?